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Riding the Indian rails: A real life roller coaster ride

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From the minute we first boarded the train in Kerala, India, all Dani wanted to do was hang out the door, taking pictures and letting her hair (and cheeks!) flap in the wind as we pummeled down the track at breakneck speed. Relieved that we weren’t on the roof, I was fine to let her hang off one handed all she wanted. Hell, the locals consider the step right in front of that door a prime seat, so why not let her jump right in to Indian culture and enjoy it!

Dani on Indian trainIndia trainBefore the trip to India, we did all the mandatory research about where to stay and how to get from A to B. This inevitably led to images of hundreds of Indians piled on top of massive trains, exposed to the elements for better or worse.

The experienced traveler in each of us knew that we wouldn’t be sitting on top of a train, but what we didn’t know is just how much of an adventure the Indian train experience would actually be.

train locomotive
indian train with boysRiding the rails in India is an experience unlike in any other country and although there is a method to the madness, the method (like all methods and matters of official transportation business in India) only make sense in a roundabout way.

When everything goes right, we had a great time immersed in culture of Sleeper class. We sprawled out on periwinkle blue plastic cushions encrusted with a layer of permanent dirt and watched the countryside whip past.

India train
Dani & Jess Indian trainTrains are the best way to visually digest massive amounts of Indian countryside as they pass through the backs of cities and across sweeping landscapes filled with palm trees. Buses, on the other hand, plow through the most congested areas of India, the main thoroughfares and city streets. Looking out the window of the train, breeze blowing in, India feels like a patchwork of wide-open spaces held sewn together by train stations and railroad tracks.

jaime on train

india train trivandrumFrom the (relative) comforts of Sleeper class, we listened to the sounds of the Chai Walla boys, carrying their heavy steel jugs of steaming hot chai tea through the narrow aisles, and breathed deeply whenever the food vendors passed with their baskets of idlies, a savory lentil donut, or full plates of curries and rice covered in plastic wrap and ready to eat.

Chai Walla Indian train
Indian railways cupDespite warnings that booking ahead was a must, we were able to hop on comfortably for our first few trips down the Keralan coast from Kochi to Trivandrum and then back up as we made our way to Goa.

And then our luck ran out.

indian train compartment

india trainWinging it doesn’t work in the Indian train system, which feels counter-intuitive considering that so many other aspects of life seem to be hanging on by a thread. Indians (the middle class at least) book weeks, even months ahead. Suddenly, there was no extra room in the Sleeper wagons for us and we were forced to run to the very front or very back of the train to the Second Class.

india train bangalore kanyakumarum
india train windowThis is an entirely different experience, and the term Second Class does not mean one step down from First. This is not the railway’s equivalent to flying coach. Instead, hundreds of people sit, stand, lean and hang inside the same space that seats no more than fifty during a busy day in a Sleeper.

It was when we were squished into Second class that we started to realize how entirely unsafe the train really is.Β Massive pushing and shoving ensues at every stop. Hanging out the door is not a playful little adventure like in Sleeper.

Here is means hanging on for your life hoping that everyone inside doesn’t all breathe in at once, puffed lungs eliminating every last centimeter and sending you flying out the door.

The more expensive the ticket, the closer to the center of the train you will find your car. So First Class is in the center, the many levels of Sleepers and air-conditioned classes more toward the outside on either side, and then at the very end, the Second Class wagons. When the train crashes, these are the cars and the people who are hit. When a wagon flies off after the train approaches a corner at breakneck speed, Second Class are the wagons that flip off into the night.

India train stationIn case of an emergency, chaos would ensure. Several iron bars cover every single window, save for one single window in each wagon aptly named the Emergency Exit. But rather than the determined order it would take to evacuate, picture four Indians shoving heads and other limbs through the tiny space. Crushed and unable to move anyway, the only passengers who could even get out would be those lucky enough to land a seat next to it.

indian train emergency windowShould a fire break out, how would these fire extinguishers possibly manage the fire?

India train station fire extinguisherThese journeys in Second Class revealed how little some lives are considered to be worth. Some sleep in beds with blankets in air-conditioned cabins, are served food and given water in First Class, and out here, at the end of the train, a man slept face down on the tin floor of the train one foot from the bathroom, with its overflowing water and intense stench. Even on our longest journey of seven hours we chose to only sip on water rather than risk having to use this ‘facility’, and sat with sarongs and scarves around our mouths for much of the journey to avoid the battle our noses and stomachs would otherwise have to endure.

family on trainDespite the smells, the sweat, the many little cockroaches scuttling along the floor, endearing moments did indeed shine through, like the family of Muslims who squeezed together to make room for us and our luggage on two overcrowded benches. Another was watching some of the goodbyes.Β The price of $4 for a long distance ticket is so prohibitive, many of our fellow passengers were undertaking epic once-in-a-lifetime journeys, crying at the door with their parents or families at a stop in a random village before hopping on while we sat guessing and writing our own scripts to understand the scene played out before us.

india train station
trivandrum central train station
train food vendorRiding the rails in India is an intimate way to experience Indian culture and we would recommend it to anyone, but for your own sake, for your own sanity, reserve your Sleeper tickets in advance!

Indian trains
indian railways
cochin train station
train station office

india train
indian railways warning sign
kollam train stationThanks to Jaime, the Breakaway Backpacker, for taking the first two awesome photos of Dani!

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48 Comments

    1. Thanks, Shalu! Yes, I have to admit that I hung out the door more than I should have but as soon as the train went faster I went back inside πŸ˜€

    1. Thanks, Scott! 2nd class on an Indian train really was an eye-opening experience. Taking the train in India still is a great experience though and I’d recommend it to anyone – as long as you pre-book your tickets πŸ˜‰

    1. Not all of the photos were taken in 2nd class, most of them were taken on the rides that we were enjoyable πŸ˜‰ But 2nd class sure is a true adventure!

    1. Thanks, Brendon! Yes, somehow we got to see both sides – but next time we’d like to see a whole new side: 1st class! Apparently there is even air-conditioning… which seems kind of absurd after experiencing 2nd class πŸ˜€

  1. Holy crap, I can’t believe you ladies did 2nd class! That takes real guts! Sleeper class was even difficult for me, with rats, roaches, and constant noise. I got no sleep on my sleeper train. The 3-tier AC cars were several notches above the sleeper. Def recommend an AC car, but it’s true, there are many more stories with sleeper and 2nd class cars. And, did you receive lots of shameless stares?
    Alexa Hart recently posted..Makeover of Atlas Sliced Coming Soon

    1. Alexa – yes, SO MANY stares! By then we were used to being stared at though, and we were able to ignore them for most part. To be honest, we did not want to get on those trains when we didn’t have a seat reservation but we just had no choice – the trains were booked for months in advance and the distances we covered were just too far to take buses. Next time I’d still like to see what 3rd tier AC cars are like AND in any case we’ll make sure to book ahead πŸ˜‰

    1. Thanks so much, Priyank! From where to where did you take the train when you visited your grandparents? I used to do the same thing in Germany when I was a kid and I was always excited about riding the train by myself… but I am sure the quality of our trains was a bit different πŸ˜‰

    1. Jade – definitely! Especially if you know that it’s only going to be a one or two hour train ride, you’ll be fine and you can take some great photos πŸ™‚ For longer rides I’d highly recommend reserving tickets though πŸ˜‰

  2. I couldn’t stop looking at the photos… seriously amazing and just brought back so many crazy memories from so many crazy times on the trains. It really is one of the best ways to see the country and see more of the Indian culture, but yes have a RESERVED SLEEPER… for real…lol. Oh lord, I’ll never forget our crazy train ride. Oh India… how I miss it.
    Jaime recently posted..Streets of Cairo in photos.

    1. Thanks so much!! Crazy memories for sure! I love the picture of you hanging out of the door. I can’t believe you’re actually saying that YOU MISS INDIA!!! πŸ˜‰

    1. Ann, I can’t believe that you were so lucky – we tried to do that exact same journey, but we couldn’t take it anymore after a few hours and had to get off the train. Did you pre-book your tickets? We also wanted to take the same journey back but the trains were all booked out for months!

  3. Second class really doesn’t look fun or safe. At least they have fans though. We are planning on taking a train from Delhi to Agra early next year on a whistle stop to India to a trekking trip in Nepal. Thanks for warning us about the pre reservation. We will definitely bear that in mind. But I am really looking forward to the train journey. Looks like so much fun.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Phea-chen’s trip to the zoo

    1. You are right, it was absolutely NOT safe. There was one particularly bad ride where we were just praying that nothing would happen and waiting to get out. Definitely reserve tickets when you go to India next year – when we tried to make reservations we found out that all the trains we wanted to take were booked for MONTHS.

      P.S. Yes, there were fans, but it was still incredibly hot. I think you only feel the fan when you’re on the upper bed. πŸ˜€

    1. I wouldn’t say we had fun exactly – there were definitely some fun moments on the trains for sure, though! When you do visit Bobbi Lee, definitely book your train travel in advance πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Bryan – as long as you get a sleeper seat, it’s fine, really. You just have to plan India more than other places, and get all those tickets booked in advance.

    1. I have to admit that when we found out that the train from Goa back to Kerala (15 hours) was completely booked and there was no chance to get a seat, we opted for a short flight instead… worth every penny πŸ˜‰ I’d still recommend taking the train in India, it’s such a great experience (as long as you have a seat, preferably in sleeper class)

  4. This has me all nostalgic about when I when I rode the train as a kid to visit my grandparents for the first time! It’s such a unique experience and reminds you that sometimes its more about the journey than the destination! I can’t wait to do it again one day soon!

    Lovely lovely post!!
    AimanAimz recently posted..Capri vs Anacapri: who wins?

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, all the food sellers were the highlight of every stop. And the guys who were carrying big buckets filled with drinks and ice cubes πŸ™‚

  5. Having been in Pittsburgh for a year, when i read your article i felt that i was back in Kerala πŸ™‚ the pictures invoke a feeling of nostalgia in me …

  6. it really does!! And as u said, i like the 2nd class train ride– you make new friends , you have a taste of good local food and what not πŸ™‚

  7. Oh geez I head to India in a week and have booked no trains in advance. I guess I am going to truly experience this train ride shock and the culture that goes with it. Ha should be interesting, but that’s what I am after when I travel, Great blog post, very descriptive, ceers

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